The title “Legend” is not only over-used but almost always proves contentious as it proves near impossible to agree an appropriate definition let alone identify those to whom the term should apply. We can unhesitatingly say, however, that whatever the definition of "Legend" one man would almost certainly be included. That man is Bartolomeo Assirati, known around the wrestling world as Bert Assirati, The Islington Hercules.
Few of our readers had the opportunity to watch Bert in action as he retired almost half a century ago. One of the fortunate ones was Heritage member Sowden, who told us:
Bert Assirati was a man who put genuine fear into his opponents. "When it came to shooter moves, arm locks and stuff, he was the best," according to Ray Hulm.
The very appearance of the man, said to weigh around nineteen stones and standing only five foot six inches high was enough to evoke fear. In the ring his powerful girth, enormous strength and apparent fondness for inflicting pain was complemented by speed and agility developed from his days as a competition gymnast and treading the boards of the music halls of Britain and Europe as one half of the acrobatic partnership of Nello and Mello. As you ask, Bert was Nello. Bert can be seen in the photo supporting his nineteen stones on one hand. His acrobatic training led to surprising agility and speed for a man of his stature, in his youth and prime at least.
Bert developed his weight lifting, wrestling and acrobatics at the Clarance Physical Culture Club in Islington, influenced by his father and cousin Joe Assirati. Seeing more potential as a wrestler, and going against the advice of George Hackenschmidt, he went on to learn the technical aspects of wrestling at the Ashdown Wrestling Club, under the guidance of Guido Ronga, George McKenzie and Peter Gotz. With an eye on catch as catch can style and the possibility of turning professional Bill followed the guidance of William Bankier, the music hall strongman, wrestler and wrestling promoter. To complete the package the Wigan wrestling schools taught him submission style wrestling.
Bert's first professional style contest was in October 1928, when he defeated one of his Ashdown Club contemporise Robert Cook. At a time when Bert was both wrestling and performing as an acrobat he would be paid as an acrobat to preserve his amateur wrestling status. Following the introduction of the all-in rules to Britain in December, 1930, Assirati established himself as one of the major forces in the rapidly growing sport, defeating top contenders of the time: Henri Irslinger, Atholl Oakeley, George Boganski, Bill Garnon, and Karl Reginsky.
During one week in 1932 whilst working for wrestling promoter William Bankier (Apollo) he wrestled in the Edinburgh Carnival under the name of John Swan. Wrestling took place each day of the tournament throughout the week with John Swan remaining undefeated. Mike Hallinan assures us this was the only time Bert wrestled under the name John Swan.
On 23 April, 1932 Bert set sail from Southampton to New York on board a Cunard liner, Berengaria, listng his occupation as "wrestler.. Despite stories to the contrary you may read elsewhere Bert's American tour is littered with defeats against mid card opponents, and a study of the record books quickly reveals that Bert's alleged undefeated tour of the States was nothing of the sort. We did uncover one intriguing report of an Assirati win, over Renato Gardini, an Italian representative in the 1912 Olympic Games. The Washington Post reported on Friday, June 17, 1932:
At the end of December, 1932, the myth of Bert's conquering of the United States must have crossed the Atlantic faster than the liner that carried him home. It was to be a myth that was to go unchallenged for decades, championed by no lesser men than the historian Charles Mascall and epitomised in the accompanying short item entitled “The Super Athletes.” (Below)
Controversy and uncertainties surround this tour in which, for whatever reason, Bert failed to make it into the top echelon of the American heavyweight division. Rumours and conjecture are rife as to why Bert did not make it to main event status in the USA. The stark fact is that Bert did not defeat all before him in the United States and was not a regular top of the bill. Maybe the American promoters just didn't want a Brit getting the better of their locally crafted talent. Possibly it was due to his unwillingness to co-operate with promoters, maybe American opponents were intimated by his reputation, or could it have been that he simply wasn't good enough? We must remember that at the time Bert had little more than a year's professional experience in a country where the all-in style was in embryonic development.
We don't report this to lessen Bert's reputation but to open up the question of whether Bert was a professional, did co-operate with promoters and lose to lesser men in both the USA, Britain and elsewhere, or whether he just wasn't as good as he claimed?
We simply don't know, and as time has passed, we probably never will. Maybe a clue can be found with Bert's suspension by the Maryland Boxing Commission for fighting with a referee!
Reliable insights into the tour have been received from wrestling historian, Mike Hallinan (see right)
Admittedly, and this is no insignificant observation, Bert was, at the time of his American tour, in his early twenties, relatively inexperienced, and nowhere near his prime. David Mantell, “We are talking here about 1932. Bert Assirati's reputation mainly comes from the late 1940s and the 1950s, once he'd been to Riley's Gym and even more so after he'd been to India. In 1932 Bert was still a young green rookie with a solid background in amateur, Greco-Roman and good gymnastic skills.”
One top rated wrestler who did face Assirati was Ray Steele. Mike Hallinan reports that of their four encounters, honours were even with each man winning one match apiece, and two ending in draws.
Bert Assirati in the USA
There has been much discussion of Bert's success in American rings.
Bert was sent to America to learn the new "All-In" type of wrestling which was much faster, and more aggressive than anything seen on this side of the world.
When he arrived they were very impressed with his physique, his strength, agility, and his zest for knowledge of the new style of wrestling.
He travelled with a group of wrestlers accompanied by his manager Gardini, and he soon learnt the ropes. Most of his opponents were college wrestlers, who were very experienced, and very tough, but Bert gave a good account of himself and was unbeaten in his first thirty five matches. In some of his matches he almost caused riots, and police were called to restore order, after his largely Italian supporters were not happy with some of the referees decisions.
In some of his matches he was thrown out of the ring ten times, such was the all action wrestling that he and his opponents produced. He impressed the Dusek brothers so much that they wanted to use him all over the States, but his work permit was not renewed and he returned to England. In the seven months in America he worked the East Coast from New York down to Washington, and engaged in sixty five matches, winning most of his matches, any losses were soon avenged in return contests.
The highlight of his tour was three matches with Ray Steele who was one of the greatest wrestlers America every produced. Their first match was a real "shooting" bout, with Steele demanding big money to risk his reputation against a young up and coming wrestler. Steele won the match and declared afterwards that Assirati was a real tiger, and he had to be on top of his game to get the win.
They met twice more with verdicts of a draw, and a win for Assirati. John Maxos was Jim Londos' training partner, and fellow Greek, who was also a top wrestler. Assirati thought by beating him it would get him a shot at Londos, and so when they met he gave Maxos a damaged eye, and a bloody nose, and defeated him again twice more. He then posted a $500 dollar cheque with the New York Boxing Commission to fight Londos, but his challenge fell on deaf ears. In those days you had to have proved yourself a worthy challenger, have the money to back up your challenge, and then have the wrestling fans poll you as their next challenger to oppose the champion.
Assirati did this, his manager Gardini who had fought Ed Strangler Lewis for the title, put up the money on his behalf, he had beaten the leading contenders, and he polled 98 per cent from the fans to be their next contender. Frank Brunowicz who, like Assirati, had been in America for six months challenged Londos, and got the match, but there was no match for Assirati, and so he returned to England in December 1932 to take his place at the head of the sport in this country.
The Americian researchers have never spent the time, and expense to really research his seven months tour of America like I did.
Jack Curly the Czar of American wrestling was so impressed with Assirati that he wanted him to come back as a top of the bill worker, but as the contracts and letters were being sent back and forth to America, and England Curly sadly died. And so Assirati never worked in America again.